INTERVIEW WITH TOM ANGELRIPPER BY KEVIN STEWART-PANKO
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MUMPI KUENSTER
Even if you’re not intimately familiar with the band’s discography and history, at the very least, the name Sodom should be familiar to extreme music fans. The German legends are celebrating 40 years of existence, and even if their stay on planet metal has been more understated than many of their cohorts, their influence and importance cannot be overstated. As a member of black metal’s first wave and longtime anchor of German thrash metal’s Big 3 (with Kreator and Destruction), the influence, inspiration, and contribution of Sodom to underground metal since their formation in 1981 isn’t something that can be summed up in a few bullet points. It’s definitely time for the third part of the comprehensive Lords of Depravity documentary or for someone to get down to the business of writing a book about them.
As a band that operates more independently than many of their contemporaries and always does so with the fans in mind, Sodom has been uncharacteristically, but understandably, quiet as pandemic restrictions have momentarily severed the live show lifeline and connection between band and supporters. Breaking that silence is latest release, Bombenhagel. Taken from 1987’s Persecution Mania, the title track being a rerecorded version of one of the band’s most popular tunes alongside two new tracks. The EP is a precursor to the official celebration of the band’s 40th anniversary, their forthcoming 17th studio album, and a series of European shows that hopefully do more to signal a return to normalcy instead of becoming another wave of super spreader events.
We caught up with bassist/vocalist/founding member Tom Angelripper, directly after a rehearsal for an upcoming hometown show to talk about his fears surrounding international relations, how hunting plays into the life of a veteran thrasher, and how to keep doing it for the fans.
Your new bio says that the last two Sodom albums were recipients of the German Record Critics Award. Is this award based on a critics poll, album sales, or something else?
It’s called the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik, but I don’t really know what it’s based on. I think it’s based on how the reviews were and for [2020’s] Genesis XIX. Most of the reviews we got were brilliant and then you get some poster award from them, but I pay it no mind because it’s not why I make music. It’s a good honor and it’s good that the record company is satisfied with how much it sold, so we got an option for the next album. That was the only positive.
Was there an award ceremony? Did you at least get a free dinner out of it?
No, no. Nothing. The best thing really was the option for the next album. I talked with Olly from the record company [Steamhammer/SPV] and we’re planning some kind of special release for our 40th anniversary and the next album.
“‘BOMBENHAGEL’ IS OUR CLASSIC, IT’S OUR FAVORITE SONG, AND WE’VE GOT TO HAVE IT IN OUR SET LIST ALL THE TIME.”
Was the Bombenhagel EP planned, or something that came about during COVID downtime?
It was planned two years ago, actually. I wanted to release a single or a maxi-single with a tour dates sticker on it. If you remember, back in 1987, we released the Ausgebombt EP with a sticker on it with the tour dates, and we wanted to do something similar. But as you know, all the shows got canceled or postponed. We talked to the record company about releasing it anyway as something special for the fans, especially since it’s out on vinyl. There’s a big collectors scene in Germany and Europe, and it’s a new version of the song. There were different versions of the song out there, but this one is the best one because of our new drummer [Toni Merkel]. He did a great job and that was part of the reason we recorded “Bombenhagal” again. It’s played straight to the point. “Bombenhagel” is our classic, it’s our favorite song, and we’ve got to have it in our set list all the time. And the two brand new songs are exclusively done for the single. They weren’t released on any album.
Where and when was it recorded?
We recorded it ourselves. We have our own studio in our rehearsal room where we have everything we need. We recorded everything with amps and microphones. There’s no digital amplification like Kempers or guitar plug-ins or any of that kind of stuff. We recorded everything with mics in order to have the sound be more organic. On Genesis XIX, we recorded everything onto a computer, but mixed it on an analog mixing board. In my opinion, using old school gear means that you’ll get a more old school sound.
Harris Johns, who originally produced Persecution Mania, plays a solo on “Bombenhagel.” Did he also mix and produce the EP?
No, Harris didn’t produce the songs. We produce ourselves. We know exactly what we want and we know exactly how it has to sound in the end. I don’t like to work with producers because I’m old enough to know what I want. When we mixed Genesis XIX, we did it on a desk, but we were all there because we know exactly what we wanted. We’re trying to keep the spirit of the old school sounds and songs.
“THERE ARE CRISES BREWING ALL THE TIME, AND IT’S BEEN A THEME OF ALL MY LYRICS BECAUSE I’VE ALWAYS BEEN SCARED OF WHAT HAPPENS IN THE NEXT YEARS AND NEXT DECADES”
This version of the song is a bit different in that it has snippets of both the US and Russian anthems. Is that a commentary on relations between the two countries?
Yes. It’s an anti-war song, and we hope that the relationship between America and Russia gets better. There are crises brewing all the time, and it’s been a theme of all my lyrics because I’ve always been scared of what happens in the next years and next decades. I’m not scared about myself. I’m thinking about my children and the next generation growing up in this.
Was it those fears that changed your lyrics from the early days’ material?
In the beginning the lyrics were more satanic and about occultism, and when you go back to Obsessed by Cruelty, I was really into Alestair Crowley and all that stuff. But this didn’t do anything for me in the end, and we changed the lyrics on Persecution Mania when I decided to write lyrics about real life, and real life is war and history, which I’m really interested in, so I try to write lyrics about real happenings.
Has the subject matter of your real life lyrics changed recently?
Absolutely. Like what happened in Washington at the storming of the Capitol building. In my opinion, it’s the ultimate war between Republicans and Democrats, and the reason I wrote the song “Pestiferous Posse,” which is about the famous shootout at the OK Corral and was a war itself between the cowboys and the law. That sort of thing has happened all the time and continues to be a problem nowadays. Also, in Germany we have fascist parties like the NPD party or the social democrats. There’s always a problem.
Is your majority focus on America indicative of a personal ongoing interest or indicative of how dominant US politics and culture has become around the world?
US politics are very important to us here in Europe. If there’s a good relationship between Europe and the European Union and America, we are safe and the world is safer. But when the relationship between Russia and America gets more problematic, there’s the potential for a really big problem because Germany and Europe are just sitting in the middle. I’m always thinking about this stuff, but I can’t change anything because I’m not very politically active. I sit down, write the lyrics, and hope that the fans are interested and not just preferring the music. I don’t want to write any fantasy lyrics like Manowar or something (laughs). I want to have lyrics with a message.
“I SIT DOWN, WRITE THE LYRICS, AND HOPE THAT THE FANS ARE INTERESTED AND NOT JUST PREFERRING THE MUSIC.”
When was the last time Sodom played the US?
I don’t know (laughs). Years ago we played a festival in Calgary in Canada and a couple years ago we were supposed to play the Maryland Deathfest, but we had to cancel. They were telling us to come to the country as tourists and leave our instruments behind because I don’t think they wanted to spend the money to get us working papers and visas. I couldn’t land as a tourist in America, have them ask me what we are doing here, then later on have pictures of us all over online of us playing a show. It’s a shame. We’re always waiting for serious offers from serious promoters that are going to help get us over for a couple festivals or shows. We have a strong fan base in the US, but we’ve never had a really good chance.
Is your absence from the US due to a lack of serious offers or dealing with the hassle and cost of going through the visa process?
I don’t know how much it would cost for the whole band, but when we play the US, I know we’re going to sell out shows. I know Kreator and Destruction tour over there pretty regularly and I know people want to see Sodom and are waiting for us. If we get a serious offer and the proper papers, we for sure would tour for at least a month. But we’ll have to wait and see because with everything being canceled, right now it’s impossible for a European band to go to America.
Didn’t you recently play a show for the first time since the pandemic?
Yeah, we played a show in Czech and it was great. Being on stage was like coming home. We played the entire Agent Orange album, and we played nearly two hours and the people were really cool. Our next show will be in my district, in Essen, near where I live.
Bands that have covered early Sodom material often talk about how chaotic that stuff is and how difficult it is to figure out what’s going on in some of the songs. Do you ever have that same problem when you go back over your old material?
Yes, absolutely yes (laughs). What we want to do now is change the set list from show to show. That is very important because we have so many songs we have never played before. I know we have some classics and that we have newer songs to promote from newer albums, but when I talk to my band, they talk about how we have to have more from Obsessed By Cruelty and more old school stuff. And when you listen to Obsessed By Cruelty, sometimes it’s like I don’t know what we’ve done there (laughs). Our drummer is a really big fan of [original drummer] Chris Witchhunter’s drumming, so he learned the exact performance as Chris did. We have a couple of songs from the first demo tape that we’re going to do at our next live show. I saw the last years of Motörhead and Slayer, and they both played the same set over those years. That’s boring to me and I don’t want to do that. We have so many albums, and when we play a song from Code Red or Tapping the Vein, people really enjoy it. It’s funny to have to learn covers of your own songs, but we try to keep the same classic 80s spirit.
“YOU HAVE TO DO MORE, GET MORE CREATIVE WITH YOUR SONGS AND SET LIST BECAUSE YOU’RE WRITING THEM FOR YOURSELF AND FOR THE FANS.”
Is that business as usual for you or an itch that needs to be scratched after a year-plus of no shows and no tours?
It is business as usual, and that’s why I kicked the other guys out of the band [in 2018]. Bernemann [ex-guitarist Bernd Kost] and Makka [ex-drummer Markus Freiwald] were never interested in doing old Sodom songs in the live set. I’m the chief of the band, but we talk about everything—it’s like a democracy. The new lineup came to me with ideas of how to change the set list and putting older songs in. That was a big problem with Bernemann and that sort of thing doesn’t work for me. You have to do more, get more creative with your songs and set list because you’re writing them for yourself and for the fans. I’m not interested in how many copies we sell. If the fans like what we’re doing, then we’ve done something right. This one-and-a-half years without shows was actually good for us as far as writing songs. We could concentrate on writing and spending more time together. We had a lockdown here in Germany where it was forbidden for bands to rehearse, but we ignored that and would still rehearse two or three times a week.
How did you otherwise cope with the COVID lockdowns and isolation?
If you’re touring all the time or playing shows every weekend, sometimes you lose touch with people, so I was able to connect with friends and spend more time at home with family. I also spent more time on my passions and hobbies. I did a lot of hunting and spent more time in my hunting district and it was a good time. But I had to worry about where money was coming from. We don’t make money from selling records, we make our money from live shows and selling merchandise. That’s my job and it was really hard at some points because the German government doesn’t really help you because you’re just an artist and a musician and not so important. So, I’m really looking forward to those next shows and spending time on tour.